Liz Jensen's second novel, Ark Baby
, is a dark, randy, and riotous romp back to the future featuring twin plot lines as tightly twisted as a double helix. The novel (if not the story) kicks into gear on New Year's Eve 1999 when a sudden, heavy rainfall over Britain signals the end of fertility on the Emerald Isle; with the turn of the millennium, every last specimen of British womanhood is rendered mysteriously barren. In the aftermath of this event, child-starved couples start turning to lower primates to satisfy their baby lust; enter veterinarian Bobby Sullivan, the hapless hero of Jensen's quirky meditation on evolution and survival of the fittest. After accidentally killing a client's beloved macaque monkey and being charged with murder, Bobby escapes to a remote northern seaside town called Thunder Spit and eventually gets involved with two, slightly hirsute twins whom he manages to impregnate--the first fertile women in England since the millennium.
Not content to chronicle Bobby's adventures in Thunder Spit circa 2000-something, Jensen weaves in the 19th-century adventures of foundling Tobias Phelps as counterpoint. Discovered abandoned in the Thunder Spit church by a childless vicar and his wife, Tobias is raised by the couple as their own, but his unusual appearance (squashed features, odd feet, hairy body) spur him to find his biological parents. As Bobby muddles towards 21st-century parenthood and Tobias gets tangled up in Victorian England's fascination with the theories of Darwin, the two plots begin to converge in a welter of diary entries, exotic recipes, strange artifacts, and curious coincidences. By the end of Ark Baby readers might well conclude that far from being "red in tooth and claw," Nature has one hell of a sense of humor.
From Kirkus Reviews
A grab bag of a story that offers a literate if self-conscious and scattered tour of Victorian grotesqueries as postmillennial Britain faces extinction. Second-novelist Jensen (Egg Dancing, not reviewed) moves from the coming millennium back to the Victorian period, and forward again, in an attempt to illuminate the many strange links between humans and their nearest primate kin. A torrential rain has caused a mysterious decline in fertility, and by 2005 it's clear that Britons will likely become extinct. Primates have become substitute infants, and when veterinarian Bobby Sullivan is accused of having murdered one (he insists that he was only following the orders of the jealous husband), the threat of prosecution sends him north to the remote seaside town of Thunder Spit, where all Jensen's narrative threads eventually converge. The author's version of the Victorian age here is populated with a crowd of odd or outright freakish individuals. The famous taxidermist Dr. Scrapie, of Thunder Spit, has been asked to mount an elaborate collection of stuffed animals for Queen Victoria. His wife, the ``Empress of Laudanum,'' has drug-induced visions of the future, and their giantess daughter, Violet, is a noted vegetarian cook. There's also a former slave-trader searching for animal specimens for the Queen and hoping, meanwhile, to figure out whether apes and humans can mateand who finds the last ``Gentleman Monkey'' in the wild and puts him in a cage with a captive ballerina. Meanwhile, the harried Bobby is attracted to Rose and Blanche, twins with unusual feet and body hair. Pregnant by Bobby, the two women, who turn out (of course) to be descendants of the gentleman monkey and the ballerina, via Violet, are the result of an ``evolutionary tangent''the sudden changes that speed up evolution and produce a new breed of humans. They are also, it seems, the mothers of a new race of Brits. Strained would-be satire, with its intellectual and narrative punch diluted by very obvious foreshadowing. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.